Tibambinum

by 

The dream: Jennie Smith woke up in a desert, standing in the center of an endless, cracked sheet of dirt so hard you could scrape your knees on it if you fell down. Above her, the sky was even blacker than her grandmother’s skin, and the moon seemed like a hole carved into its clay.

Several feet away, an ibis scratched at the soil with long and skinny legs, forcing its narrow beak into the grooves where the surface had split while drying. The ibis stopped, sensing her presence.

“What are you doing here?” it asked.

The ibis didn’t speak English. It was a different language, something Jennie Smith had never heard before, but the syllables still rang with meaning. “This is my dream,” she told the ibis. Her mouth couldn’t form the bird’s strange sounds, so she spoke in the language she used at school.

The ibis cackled, stamped at the broken ground. “Filthy,” it spat. The long beak again disappeared into a crack.

“What are YOU doing here?” Jennie asked.

“Fishing.”

When Jennie woke up the next morning she tried to hold onto the dream, tried to file the strange sounds away beside their English counterparts. She showered, got dressed, and ate breakfast with her mother and father and grandmother and grandfather and aunts and uncles and everyone else on their floor of the Center for Indigenous Transition.

“I had a strange dream last night,” she said, and began relating the events. At first, only her mother was listening, but gradually the others fell silent and before long, the length of the table was filled with closed mouths and wide eyes watching the girl’s gestures. “It asked me what I was doing here,” Jennie said. “But it didn’t say that, it didn’t say what are you doing here, instead, it said…” she closed her eyes and concentrated, testing the unfamiliar movements in the space where her tongue met the roof of her mouth. They felt foreign but fluid, and when she gave voice to them she was surprised by the ease with which they fell from her lips.

No one said anything, for several seconds. Her parents exchanged meaningful looks, her aunts and uncles exchanged meaningful looks, and get grandparents exchanged meaningful looks. After the silence in the room became nearly unbearable, it was broken by the sharp snap of Jennie’s grandmother’s palm against her cheek. “Ow!” Jennie yelled.

“Don’t you ever use that language again,” she said furiously.

“It was just a dream!” Jennie argued as she pressed her hand against the warm skin of her face.

“It’s a dead language,” the old woman continued with slightly less force. “It’s filthy. Don’t you ever let anyone hear you use that language again.”

Jennie put down her fork and stared at her plate, still rubbing her cheek with her other hand. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

“We use English now,” her grandmother said, then returned to her seat. Jennie watched the table, full of dark faces with darker eyes silently focusing on fingers, napkins, plates, anything but Jennie and her Grandmother. The old woman picked up her fork and scraped up the final remnants of her egg. “We use English,” she repeated. “Only English.”

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